A better way?
If, after all this, you decide this no longer is a suitable, or workable, model for the 21st century, then here are seven
strategies that will work well:
1 Pick an agency that knows your business. You probably do not have time to train a team in your therapeutic area: If you are working in cardiovascular disease, you
will have a wide choice; if you are working in pediatric vaccines, you will struggle to find three teams to pick between (once
you have ruled out those working on directly competing projects). Get the agencies you are considering to tell you what they
know. Only the most pathetically inadequate will send you a bad set of case studies or an irrelevant set of bios.
Instead, ask for a couple of hours to meet (or talk on the phone if you want to be really considerate of their time). Tell
them not to prepare anything formal, but to be ready to talk about the big issues in the field. Say you're not expecting answers,
but an appreciation of the problems and opportunities and some idea of the processes that they will use to think them through.
Tell them that you will run the discussion, and that everybody who is invited to the discussion from their side will be expected
to contribute. If you're not comfortable doing this, enlist a colleague who is (most senior people in medical affairs love
Then make sure you listen. They'll try to get you to talk, because many of them will think that their job is to tell you what
you want to hear. Play the strong, contemplative type—at least for a couple of hours. Ask open-ended questions and explore
their ideas, but don't tell them what you are thinking. (You will need to do this separately with each group that you are
interested in—no one will discuss their real insights in front of the competition). You'll see who really understands the
area. You won't yet know whether the people who impress you will actually do the work for you, but usually you'll know who
you want to work with.
2 Pick an agency with the right skills. If you want to convince dermatologists to stick with proven treatments, you need one mindset; if you want to mobilize patient
groups to participate in hunger strikes, you need another. If you can, find an agency that knows the therapeutic area and
has the right skills. If not, it is easier to pick up a new set of category learning than to develop new skills. You might
not feel qualified to judge, for example, how good an agency is at patient group relations, but approach it with the same
method: listen, question, play stupid if you need to, and decide how much they really know.
3 Hire them all. If you have time, do what a client did to me years ago: She awarded three small projects to different agencies, and said
that she would review things in six months. She did not commit to consolidating but, in the end, she did. Six months was long
enough for the two big agencies to assign their usual team of bright adolescents—the client later told me that the final straw
with one had come when an earnest young man told her, very confidently, that it would cost a lot to "translate into Indian."
Because the contracts were not explicitly linked to a big future opportunity, they slipped under the new-business radar systems
at the agencies, and she got to see what working together would really be like. One of her tests was how well the agencies
worked together—she figured that those who focused on blaming a competitor would probably blame her or her colleagues for
future problems, while those who found the solutions to collaboration problems would behave the same way when they had all
the business. This gives you the freedom to try smaller, newer agencies that seem good but don't have a track record in delivering.
4 Use the German model. If you don't have time to follow the dating model I've suggested above, give each shortlisted agency a small, well-defined
task and pay them a reasonable amount to propose a framework for handling it. Tell them that you may or may not assign more
work to any team that impresses you. You will then own the answers and can use them as you see fit. Again, you will short-circuit
most agency new-business systems—this will be treated as a paid project and you will get the teams that real clients get.
For example, you might ask for three innovative ways of activating men with IBS who are willing to talk to a doctor. Ask for
them to be explained in detail and cost, but say that you will not decide between agencies based on the quality of the creative
materials; good creative thinking takes lots of trial and error. Nor will you expect them to approach third parties on your
behalf. You will get a flavor of working with each. Call the most junior person listed as working on the project to discuss
the ideas soon after you get them—do it without warning. ("I just wondered if you had a minute to clear up a few questions?")
Then schedule a proper team discussion.